In its earliest decades, Theatre Communications Group was devoted to nurturing the theatre field, with an initial focus on 20 fledgling U.S. resident companies, helping artistic and managing leaders explore topics like artistry, audience development, subscriptions, professionalizing technical and administrative staffs, joint auditions, and funding sources. By the 1980s the field was growing and branching out to embrace our place in the world, from federal advocacy and activism to a budding international consciousness, stoked by early pioneers such as La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart, George White at the O’Neill Theater Center, the International Theatre Institute, and others.
As reported in American Theatre in September 2017, one of the field’s pivotal early relationships to Japanese theatre was through director Tadashi Suzuki. It began in 1978 when Sanford Robbins, a professor of actor training at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), was riveted by Suzuki’s work in Japan, spearheading a collaboration among UWM, John Dillon and Sarah O’Connor at Milwaukee Repertory Theater, and TCG’s Peter Zeisler, to invite Suzuki’s company to perform in the U.S. Later, in 1992, Suzuki co-founded SITI with Anne Bogart, making way for further dissemination of the Suzuki Method stateside. (TCG published a book of Suzuki’s writings, Culture Is the Body, in 2015). Meanwhile in the ’90s Pennsylvania’s Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble began a Noh Training Project, which provides both instruction and professional noh performances in the small town of Bloomsburg, Pa., each summer.
TCG’s international interest also deepened in the 1990s with the acquisition of the U.S. Center of the International Theatre Institute, then led by the late Martha Coigney, with 90 ITI centers worldwide. In 2016, TCG and the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics joined forces to create the Global Theater Initiative, which currently houses ITI/U.S. Through globally focused pre-conferences and delegations, grants, visa consultations, and more, TCG has supported the ever-growing interest among theatre practitioners to partner with and learn from their peers abroad. Grant programs such as Future Collaborations, designed by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and TCG, and later Global Connections—both funded by Mellon—gave countless artists the opportunity to build relationships across national lines, create work together, be inspired by each other, and address local and worldwide concerns through the arts.
Given American Theatre’s May/June issue focus on Japan, it seemed valuable to share a few noteworthy recent Global Connections projects involving Japanese theatre and culture: Ako Dachs, founding artistic director of Amaterasu Za, translated and adapted three of Monzaemon Chikamatsu’s double-suicide plays, Courier of Hell, Double-Suicide at Sonezaki, and Love Suicides at Amijima into one play, Courier of Love. Chikamatsu (1653-1725), often called the Shakespeare of Japan, wrote more than 130 plays for the bunraku puppet theatre and the live kabuki stage. In April in New York, a standing-room-only “work-in-progress” reading featured a Gidayu-Shamisen player trained in the live underscoring of actors in the Japanese tradition.
For her Global Connections project, playwright Velina Hasu Houston will develop a new work investigating Japanese-Brazilian culture and identity. With collaborators Hasu Houston plans to interview Japanese Brazilians living in Japanese factory towns, engage with their community organizations and events, and engage with researchers of this multi-ethnic culture and identity.
Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB) collaborated with the BIRD Theatre in Tottori, Japan, to host the First International Symposium for Disabled Theatre during the opening week of the 11th BIRD International Theatre Festival. That led in turn to BIRD artistic director Makoto Nakashima founding the Freedom Theatre, an offshoot of BIRD designed to integrate disabled and non-disabled artists.
Another fascinating undertaking is that of director/designer Tom Lee and collaborator Josh Rice, who have been working with Koryu Nishikawa, a fifth-generation master of the Japanese traditional puppet form Kuruma Ningyo (cart puppetry), to devise new modes of performance that take those traditions into the future.
Finally, Austin’s Forklift Danceworks traveled to Kyoto, Japan, to collaborate with Hyslom Theater Group and the Kyoto Art Center. Artistic director Allison Orr embedded herself in practices and games of the Japanese Women’s Baseball League (JWBL), from which she developed Play Ball Kyoto at Kyoto’s Wakasa Stadium, with a cast including grounds crew and more than 20 community dancers and live musicians.
TCG’s full range of Global Connections projects, as well as this issue of American Theatre, brings the history and current state of Japanese theatre into focus, offering a new lens for thinking about the exciting evolution of theatre worldwide over the centuries and the decades—and often against the odds. While we continue to face the daily stresses of audience attendance, funding, politics, and more, there is also the indomitable spirit of the creativity and artistry that lives within us, and that is nurtured by exposure to new ideas, aesthetics and points of view.
Thanks to the wonderful curation of Cindy Sibilsky and the support of the Japan Foundation for making this American Theatre issue possible, and to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and others who continue to support cultural exchange, at a time when we most need it